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Crittenden Compromise/Fort Sumter
Although by early 1861 seven southern states announced they had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America,
political leaders on both sides still hoped for compromise. President James Buchanan, who believed that secession was
unconstitutional but also held the view that the federal government had no legitimate authority to compel a state to stay in
the Union against its will, did little to increase (or to decrease) tensions. He refused to recognize the Confederacy and
supported the continued occupation of federal property in rebel states where possible, but also let such holdings go where
they were not tenable.
Federal troops, for example, continued to control Fort Sumter in South Carolina because its
commander, Major Robert Anderson, remained loyal to the United States. Anderson moved his soldiers into the fort,
whose location in Charleston harbor made it inaccessible without a fight. By contrast, General David Twiggs, the
commander of the federal troops stationed in Texas, promptly surrendered his headquarters in San Antonio and the forts
under his command when pressed by Confederate agitators, in exchange for the peaceful departure of his men from the
state (Twiggs later become a commissioned officer in the Confederate army).
Abraham Lincoln also kept a low profile during this period. Not yet holding office, the president-elect did not wish to
make the sectional tensions worse, especially since he had not power yet to respond. The situation in the winter of 18601861 looked bleak. Along with the states that already announced that they were leaving the Union, a number of others lay
on the brink of secession. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—all slave states—rejected the initial call
for disunion, but voters in those states who remained deeply wary of Lincoln and the Republicans could be turned rather
easily. Many voters in the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri were also sympathetic to secession.
Political leaders moved cautiously but tensions escalated, nonetheless, especially in the vicinity of Fort Sumter.
As the winter dragged on, compromise efforts failed. Neither side could agree on the future of slavery’s expansion.
Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, a former Whig and Know Nothing who most recently supported the
Constitutional Union Party, brought forward the most notable conciliatory proposal.
The so-called Crittenden
Compromise offered to end the secession crisis with a package of constitutional amendments and congressional
resolutions designed to entice the South back into the Union peacefully: “Unrepealable” amendments would have
permanently guaranteed the existence of slavery in the states where it currently existed while extending the Missouri
Compromise line to the California border, allowing slavery south of that boundary. Other proposed amendments would
prohibit the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C. and provide compensation to owners of fugitive slaves. The
congressional resolutions pledged fidelity to the federal Fugitive Slave Law and condemned northern state laws which
impeded the return of runaway slaves, but also took into account northern criticisms by suggesting a modification of the
national law so judges received the same compensation regardless of their decisions in fugitive slave cases. The
compromise failed. Congress tabled the proposal in December 1860, about two weeks after being introduced.
Many of Senator Crittenden’s proposals reemerged at a Peace Conference that convened in Washington in February
This convention proposed a constitutional amendment that, like the Crittenden Compromise, permitted the
expansion of slavery (again below the Missouri Compromise line). For President-elect Lincoln and most Republican
leaders, some of the proposals were open to negotiation, but not the continued expansion of slavery. If they made such a
concession, their victory in the 1860 election (a mandate against the further expansion of slavery, in Republican eyes)
would be meaningless. Without such a concession, however, the seceded states would not willingly rejoin the Union.
Lincoln summed up the impasse in his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861): “One section of our country believes
slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the
only substantial dispute.” Lincoln professed, likely in all honesty at the time, “no purpose . . . to interfere with the
institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” He also accepted the Fugitive Slave Law, but he reasserted that
secession was the immediate issue, not slavery’s future: “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the
Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” The Constitution, Lincoln argued, did not contain a “provision . . .
for its own termination.” No state had the right to break with the Union on its own. “Secession,” Lincoln’s stated, was
“the essence of anarchy.” He thus pledged to hold on to the federal property, including Fort Sumter, to assure mail
delivery, and to maintain the Union. “In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none
unless it be forced upon the national authority.”
Lincoln made two crucial rhetorical moves in this address. First, his portrayal of the conflict as one over the
perpetuation of the Union rather than the future of slavery allowed him to push federal claims in a way that would not
instantly alienate voters (and potential secessionists) in the Upper South and the Border States. He also gave assurances
that the Union would not be the aggressor if violence broke out: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and
not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without
being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the
most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’’’
Lincoln’s words were immediately put to the test. Shortly after he delivered his address, the new president received
word that Fort Sumter was running out of supplies. Control of this well-fortified outpost located in Charleston’s harbor
had been a point of contention ever since South Carolinians claimed they were leaving the Union. Buchannan refused
to give it up, and the garrison’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, had ratcheted up the tension when he moved his
forces into the fort in December 1860. Before Lincoln took office, an effort in January 1861 to reinforce the garrison
had failed. Confederate officials then indicated that further efforts would be considered an act of war. Lincoln’s most
obvious options were not desirable. He could send reinforcements, but that move would precipitate war and make the
federal government appear to be the aggressor, despite assurances in his just-delivered inaugural address. He could
also authorize the fort’s surrender—an action that would certainly be read as a sign of weakness as well as a tacit
admission of the legitimacy of secession. These alternatives put Lincoln in a box, and neither choice was d esirable to
Lincoln demurred for a few weeks until he could find a preferred solution to his predicament. Eventually, he
brilliantly opted to resupply the fort, but without reinforcements. He notified the governor of South Carolina of his
intentions, assuring the official that only provisions, and not armed men, would be arriving on supply ships. This plan
removed Lincoln from his bind while placing the ball squarely into the Confederacy’s court. If the southern leadership
allowed supplies to land, the action would be interpreted as an acknowledgement of federal control of the fort, not to
mention allowing the federals to maintain possession of the fort for several months into the future. If they ordered an
attack, the Confederacy would basically assume responsibility for starting the war. The Confederate national government,
under pressure from the press and prominent secessionist politicians, opted for the latter course. After 33 hours of
bombardment, Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun.